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Why 3D printing's shifting fortunes will benefit us all

3D printing is arguably the game changer of all technologies currently under development. Here's how it can help us all.

3D Printing, also known as additive manufacturing (AM), offers a paradigm shift in manufacturing by increasing efficiency, decreasing waste, democratising design and production, and reforming industrial design through free complexity. Founder and executive chairman of XponentialWork, Avi Reichental, once told the Financial Times that 3D printing could potentially be “bigger than the internet.”

The technology's biggest advantage is that it overcomes the challenges associated with traditional production by offering a faster, more cost-efficient, and customisable alternative, while at the same time resolving several of the challenges of traditional manufacturing, including environmental sustainability and supply chain insecurity.

The demise of the consumer-centric thesis

The initial hype around 3D printing was centered on the belief that the technology would achieve mass penetration of the consumer market as desktop appliances for the home. This early universal optimism was a view shared and backed by many of the large market intelligence firms, resulting in a swell of media hype and bloated stock valuations.

However, though consumer use has increased as 3D printers have become more widely available, this consumer-centric thesis has been invalidated by the huge manufacturer interest in the technology, with businesses from a broad range of sectors such as General Electric, Boeing, and Nike, among others, becoming the dominant drivers of the market. As far back as 2019, for example, 30% of the $1.1 billion invested was dedicated to companies exploring the technology's industrial applications, and this figure is estimated to be significantly higher today. Going forward, the global 3D printing industry is projected to reach between $40-$50 billion by 2030.

Figure 1: Applied 3D printing leads investments by category

The pandemic highlighted the advantage of 3D printing technology

COVID-19 spotlighted 3D printing’s utility as the impact of a reduced workforce and the global economic fallout exposed the frailty of global supply chains. At the same time, the pandemic also underscored the need for firms to diversify their supply chains in order to remain operational, even under exceptionally challenging circumstances.

For example, a survey conducted by the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) conducted at the height of the pandemic reported that close to 75% of companies reported supply chain disruptions as a result of COVID-19, affecting both lead times and causing delays due to freight capacity shortages. Another report by Dun and Bradstreet identified some 51,000+ companies that had at least one key supplier in the Chinese provinces most heavily impacted by the outbreak of the virus.

As risk mitigation is becoming an increasingly strong consideration when evaluating the health of supply chains in the post-pandemic world, 3D printing's role to alleviate potential trade issues through localised production and the reduction of suppliers in the chain can only grow larger.

3D printing to accelerate infrastructural development

It is no secret that the African continent is home to some of the fastest-growing economies in the world, and with that comes increased demand for infrastructural development. It is our view that broad-based investment in key industry 4.0 technologies will facilitate a giant leap in productive capacity for countries across the continent that will help meet the rapidly rising demand as economies expand. This could provide a more organic and cost-effective manufacturing/construction base compared with traditional methods (injection moulding, extrusion, etc.) which are significantly more capex-intensive.

Indeed, there is plenty of evidence that this trend is well underway. For example, Swiss cement manufacturer, Holcim Group, recently partnered with African construction company, 14Trees, for the production of schools and affordable housing in Kenya and Malawi. Deploying printers manufactured by Danish COBOD, these systems can print a single house or even a block of two semi-detached homes in approximately 12-18 hours. Once the concrete for the primary structure is printed in a matter of hours, the rest of the building (electrics, windows, etc.) can be completed in just one month, which represents an 80-90% lead-time reduction compared with traditional methods.

3D printed home at the Mvule Gardens housing complex in Kenya. Source: Holcim;

In another example, a Texas-based start-up, ICON, has already delivered over twenty 3D-printed concrete structures across the US and Mexico, with approximately 50% of them being allocated to the homeless. Highlighting the potential of the technology, the company has recently secured $200 million from investors who see how the technology could disrupt a housing industry in urgent need of change.

3D printing's impressive sustainability credentials

In addition to substantially reducing costs and lead times in construction and manufacturing, the business world is responding to the rising perception that 3D printing is an inherently more sustainable approach to manufacturing and construction. Due to the reduced material usage, freight load reduction, and the long-term benefits of lightweight design and eco-friendly materials development, it is estimated that a 50-70% cut in carbon emissions can be achieved through 3D printing vs. other methods. Here, advances in 3D-printing concrete is allowing for materials to be made on site instead of manually transporting them by road as pre-cast slabs before being assembled by large cranes, and these gains all contribute to the end-to-end reduction in emissions.

Though challenges remain, the future is printed

It is clear that a multiplicity of needs including cost reduction, supply chain security, and achieving more sustainable methods of production are serving to raise the profile of 3D printing as a key technology for industry to leverage – both as a competitive advantage and as a means to accelerate developmental goals.

As the 3D printing market continues to mature and the technology becomes more affordable and widespread, it will not only allow for a greater degree of localised product production and personalisation, it can, if deployed correctly, also bring about important developmental change, create employment, while conserving the environment. Despite this, challenges still remain with respect to the scaling up of printing operations to reduce inefficiencies and to further push down the costs of 3D printed products further relative to their traditionally-built counterparts in order to achieve that ‘no-brainer’ business case across more industries.


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Disclaimer: The information contained within is for educational and informational purposes ONLY. Any commentary provided is the opinion of the author and should not be considered a personalised recommendation. The information contained within should not be a person's sole basis for making an investment decision. Please contact your financial professional before making an investment decision. No no commercial relationships or partnerships exist with any of the technology providers, manufacturers, or suppliers herein.


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